Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Gimp vs. Photoshop Elements 8

2/18/13 Update: Why I'm using PSE more and more

It's been another year.  I still have both PSE 8 and Gimp installed.  That isn't going to change.  But here is a brief update to this article based on another year's experience with the programs.

PSE 8: Stuff I Love
1. Layer Grouping.
Love, love, love it.  I use it All the time, even when building my own pages vs. using someone else's published maps.  For those unfamiliar with the concept, here's what you do.
a. Create a shape on a new layer.  Complicated, simple, doesn't matter. Fill it with a solid color.
b. Drag over a piece of scrapping paper as a new layer over the top of your shape.
c. With the paper layer selected, hit "Cntrl-G."
Voila: Your paper is automatically clipped to the exact shape and size of the shape you made below.
Better yet: if you edit the "master" layer (you need to set visibility of your paper layer to off first), you can easily change size and shape. (Contrast Gimp: If you discover that your paper needs to be 1/2 an inch wide, you will have to go back to your original paper file and cut out a new piece, delete the old one, and paste the new one in place.) Layer style attributes also follow the master later.
Example from real life: I was building a page based on a map with a number of approximately 4x6 and 4x3 photos. But they weren't exact: they needed room for borders and frames. Rather than do a bunch of complicated calculations to determine that they really needed to be (wild guess) 3.8 x 5.8 inches, I just drew a rectangle of about the right size and duplicated it several times to fill out my map. Then I resized my photos to 4x6, dragged them over, and clipped them to my template rectangles. So much quicker!
I have a whole tutorial on how to use a PSE (or Photoshop) template in Gimp. It can be done - you Can use the "alpha to selection" option on a layer to create an ersatz clipping template - but there are many more steps, and you cannot go back and change things nearly so easily.

2. Clicking on any object not only selects it in the layer dialog (Huge advantage when there are dozens of layers!), but also gives you "handles" for resizing and rotating.  Yes, Gimp offers all of the same abilities.  But there are many more clicks involved.

3. Layer Styles. I've become very used to having my shadows (especially) turn on and off with the click of a button, rather than be applied painstakingly at the end as a separate layer.
Layer Styles are by no means perfect. I prefer the bevel tool in Gimp to the bevel styles in PSE.  I'm also frequently irritated that the Stroke style (hands down the easiest way of getting a nice frame around a photo or a title since I still haven't found a workaround to the automatic feathering on the Select Border command) is applied *outside* the layer, and more importantly outside any shadow.  This means you have to make the shadow bigger to compensate... Anyway, a minor quibble, but it bugs me regularly.

4. I've downloaded some rather fun actions - basically little mini-programs for making colors pop, making a photo vintage-looking, adding a corner curl to a frame, etc. There are thousands of these available, many free.  Gimp has them too, but I haven't found as many nice ones for photo editing - possibly simply 'cause I haven't looked!

Things that still drive me nuts about PSE 
1. Why can you not use the arrow keys to scroll through the layers?  Seriously!
1b. On a related note, why is "Duplicate Layer" hidden in a right-click menu instead of a button on the layer toolbar? I duplicate layers Constantly, and there are far too many clicks involved.
2. There is no Grain Merge blending style.  This is the Gimp style that creates the most natural looking shadows, as it allows them to take on some of the color of the layer below rather than being purely black / gray / whatever.
3. Precision, precision, precision.  Or lack thereof.  Seriously, if I want a layer containing a 4x6 rectangle, the easiest possible way to do it is to create a new image on a 4x6 canvas (or resize an existing photo) and drag it over to my document.  It's practically impossible to do it any other way.  Nor is there any rational means that I have determined for getting the measurement of an existing layer.
When using a template, I find it preferable to resize my photos to the approx. size and aspect ratio on their own canvases before moving them into the page.  When a template doesn't use a standard size, I simply have to guess.

Summing up the above: PSE allows me to accomplish more, quicker.
But always at the expense of precision, and sometimes at the expense of "realism." (That is, making my finished product look more like something created from paper and glue than a computer.)
So when I can let go of my perfectionist gene, PSE is the way to go.  For things that need exactitude, stick with Gimp!

OK, now back to my original article on the subject - about 90% of which still applies.

Original Review, January 2012

This year for Christmas my dear husband bought me a Bamboo tablet, which lets me use a pen or my fingers as input devices on a approx. 6 in square surface. It's a fun toy, and it also happened to ship with a "free" copy of Photoshop Elements 8. A not-insignificant part of me was reluctant to install it and thereby give up my "geek cred" of using 100% free image software. But my other voice told that one to "stuff it" and give it a try. 'Cause let's be honest: Gimp has some shortcomings, especially when it comes to text editing.
After about a month of using it, I've moved from "I Hate this program and cannot believe anyone can accomplish anything with it" to "Well, it does do Some things pretty nicely." Unsurprisingly, a lot of my initial hate was just not knowing where to look for certain common functions I use in Gimp all the time. That said, there definitely Are some strengths and weaknesses in both programs - I cannot imagine I'll be uninstalling Either in the foreseeable future.
I thought it might be helpful to others considering purchasing software for their digital scrapping to see a little run down of pros and cons when compared against Gimp.

First, the things I like
Adobe PSE 8 Good Stuff
  • Cntrl-V automatically pastes the clipboard as a new layer. No more navigating through two layers of pull-down menus! (On the downside, I can't figure out - not that I've really tried - how to paste something onto the Current layer. Every once in a while this is desired.)
  • You can drag and drop entire layers between documents by either (a) dragging from the source document itself, or (b) dragging the layer icon from the layer dialog. Really handy!
  • By default, the PSE equivalent of "snap to grid" is turned on. When you drag elements around, they are magnetically attracted to a (fairly course) grid, and also the edges of the document. You can move them off these predefined points - and off the sides if desired - but it's pretty easy to line things up when you want to. This feels very intuitive, and I've definitely gotten used to it. (Be sure to read the "Cons" below for the flip side, though.)
  • Auto layer selection! Click on the element you want to edit inside the document, and it is automatically selected in the layer dialog! Gimp has very limited auto-layer selection: you can Move a layer that is not active by clicking on it (when that option is chosen), but doing so does not actually change the active layer. And before you can copy it, apply a shadow, etc. you must navigate through the layer dialog and find the layer you want to edit. When you're dealing with dozens of layers, this can be a bit frustrating.
  • Layer handling is more flexible, powerful, and intuitive. In Gimp you can "link" layers together such that when you move, rotate, or etc. they act as one. But you can have only one "set." PSE allows multiple sets - you could, for instance, link a journal block and its text as one set, and a photo with its frame as a second set. You can also create temporary groupings by control-clicking several layers in the layer dialog. They act as a set until you click another layer not in the set.
  • As expected, Text Editing is pretty nice! You can apply bold, italic, and underlined text styles - which are completely inaccessible in Gimp. You can change size, line spacing, color, and even Font inside a single text layer. Moreover, you can continue to edit the text in the layer even after resizing, or rotating. And, you can change the text orientation to vertical rather than horizontal - not that I've found a need for this yet. About the only thing I don't see that it can do is type on a curve. Still, quite an improvement over Gimp's functional but very basic text handling.
  • Layer Styles. This is a concept that does not exist in Gimp at all. If you want a drop-shadow or a bevel or whatever in Gimp, you have to use a "filter" to create it, and it is typically assigned its own layer. You can merge the layers afterwards (or even automatically in some cases), but that does prevent you from modifying the source layer again. It's "glued down." In practice, I save applying any sorts of effects in Gimp for the very end, when all elements are placed as desired.
    In contrast, PSE applies shadows and bevels (plus a host of other - IMHO far less useful - things) as "layer styles." These may be applied or removed from layers with the click of one button, and - most importantly - are automatically modified with the layer! In other words, if you change the layer's size from 2 in to 4, the shadow changes with it. Or if you change it from a circle to a square, the shadow changes it with it. If you rotate it 90 degrees, the shadow goes with it - and continues to fall in the "right" place. (Again, in Gimp you'd need to delete and then recreate the shadow layer if you made a change to the "casting" layer.") This is easy to get used to!
  • There are some fun tools available for drawing various pre-set shapes, or stamping images (in a variety of colors and/or sizes) on the page. I haven't spent much time looking into these - I am pretty sure this is the "brush" functionality, though, which as expected is considerably more powerful (if not any more intuitive) than Gimp's.
  • The "auto-correct" options for tuning lighting, contrast, color cast, etc. on photos is pretty good. Better than Gimp's, I think - at least a little.
  • There are a whole lot more "artsy" filters, layer styles, and whatnot than in Gimp by default (although you can certainly add them after the fact if you're motivated.)
  • On the whole, PSE is undeniably Faster than Gimp. I've gotten used to delays measured in seconds - sometimes Several seconds - when doing fancy things like applying shadows, bevels, unsharp mask, rotating a large layer, etc. These delays are all but nonexistent in PSE.
Now, the Bad
If you're picking up PSE after developing serious proficiency in Gimp, there's going to a lot that annoys you. You're going to think some very basic options (rotating or mirroring layers, for instance) are missing because they're hidden in a very different menu. Most of the keyboard shortcuts are different (or missing.) Things are simply not where you expect them. I am not going to focus on this stuff, because for the most part it falls under the heading "learning curve" not "weakness." Give it a couple of weeks and three or four projects and you'll figure most of that out. What follows, on the other hand, is stuff that PSE simply cannot do as well as Gimp.
  • To sum up a whole class of shortcomings in one bullet: PSE does not provide the Explicit, Exact control over size, placement, and a whole host of other features that Gimp provides. There does not appear to be a method for creating a selection box of (for instance) exactly 134 x 83 pixels by any means but extremely careful mousework. I finally found a hidden-by-default panel that displays information such as the x and y coordinates and size of the current selection, but this is read-only. I haven't found a way to draw a selection of a certain aspect ratio. Cropping is similarly kludgy. There are options for locking in an aspect ratio, but if there's a way to set arbitrary ones, I haven't found it. Guides do exist, but cannot be created ac hoc by dragging from a side or top. They can be created only by giving a specific pixel (not percentage) location - leaving you to do the math in your head if you want cross-hairs centered on your document. Frankly, this drives me batty. Gimp leaves PSE in the proverbial dust with its fine-grained control over practically everything. I am sure some people find Gimp's options overwhelming. But they're also very powerful!
  • There are no separate "resize" or "rotate" tools: the control handles are built into the layer select rectangle. While highly intuitive, again, the fine grained control is missing: you can't rotate exactly 10 degrees, or resize a layer by 50%, or to exactly 3 inches.
  • Text editing is not without its foibles. I have not managed to get the hang of drawing the bounding box initially, and if you make it too small and type off the end of it, that text cannot be selected via the mouse or Cntrl-A command. You have to resize the text box so that everything is visible before you can operate on those words - for instance, to resize them. Annoying.
  • For reasons that defy imagination, you cannot use the arrow keys to scroll through your layers in the layer dialog: you must use the scroll bar and your mouse / input device of choice. This can slow you down a bit.
  • Layer Styles are not without their shortcomings, either. (This is an expansion of my general complaint under bullet one.) I just this very moment found a hidden menu under Layer -> Layer Style -> Style Settings where you can control the angle of light and several other bits for shadows, bevels, and a couple other layer styles. These are not quite as extensive as the options for a third-party bevel and shadow filter set I have installed for Gimp, but they Do exist. And the defaults do cover the 80, or even 90% scenario with their presets, so again, it's not a huge deal.
    The lack of options actually may be a little more frustrating in some of the more complex layer styles. I mentioned I haven't found these very useful, and this is true, but there are a couple fun ones that can very easily create "tacs," "stickers," or other shiny, 3D elements. These tend to be offered, however, in just a handful of colors - you cannot say "Oh, I want this cool Neon effect, but I want to use the specific green I've got elsewhere on my page."
  • There does not appear to be a color-select tool (i.e. select all red or reddish pixels in this layer.) Similarly, there do not seem to be tools / filters for changing the color of an entire image / element. I frequently use Gimp to recolor either entire papers or embellishments, or specific regions thereof. If PSE can even do this, I can't figure out how. I mean, I guess you could use a (painfully created) layer mask, fill with a solid color, and change the blend mode, but this is not nearly as straightforward as Gimp's "colorize" or "colorify" options, nor does it offer the same level of control.
  • Ironically, the file manager is really annoying. I say "ironically," because it's simply the Windows file manager, like every other MS and most non MS products inherit, Gimp being a notable exception. But what Gimp's file management (by which I mean the dialogs where you open and save documents) lacks in polish, it makes up for in functionality - specifically the two features of being able to define "favorites" or "bookmarks," and the default behavior of starting the "open" or "save" dialogs in the folder of the current document.
    To give you an example, I have both my scrapbook pages and my scrapbook elements in fairly deep, and very Separate folder structures. A fairly common use case is to want to open another paper or embellishment from the same collection as one you're already using. In Gimp, you simply switch to the document window of an element from that collection and hit Cntrl-O. The Open dialog appears, oriented on the collection's folder. Not (necessarily) so PSE. Its Open dialog will always be oriented to the last folder from which you opened something. If that happened to be a page from your scrapbook, or an element from a different collection, too bad.
    This is even worse when it comes to saving, because at least the Windows "favorites" behavior is accessible when opening files. Those favorites are Not displayed on the Save dialog, so if you want to save your scrapbook page after opening an embellishment from a random collection, you're going to have to do all that navigation by hand. Irritating, to say the least. I also find Gimp's "favorites" behavior more convenient and customizable than the Windows behavior to begin with.
  • The error messages are surprisingly generic and unhelpful. Example: I was attempting to use the clone stamp tool, but I did not know how to set my clone-from source. In Gimp you hit "Control," but not in PSE. When you simply click on your layer with the tool, though, you get a message that says "Could not use the clone stamp tool because of a program error." The first time this happened (elsewhere in the program) I honestly thought the filter or whatever I was trying to do was buggy - or that my whole program was about the crash. Because I was familiar with the concept of a clone-stamp tool, I knew this time that I needed to set the source, but nothing told me what the magic button was. I eventually guessed (it's "Alt!"), but a functional error message would have said "Must Alt-Click to set a clone source before using this tool." In Gimp, as soon as you select the Clone Stamp tool, the status bar at the bottom of your image reads "Cntrl + Click to set a new clone source" and if you ignore this and click away, the message now reads "Set a Source Image First." Imagine that. :}
    I'm rather surprised at this lack in PSE, given that good messaging and documentation is one thing I really expect in a product I've paid for.
  • There are about a dozen other minor irritations that are running around in the back of my head: for instance, the "border" command on a selection automatically feathers, and cannot be unfeathered. Moving the various open document windows around inside the program is surprisingly non-intuitive - they tend to suddenly "stick" to things or change size or do something I simply don't understand, etc. There is no "crop to selection" or "auto-crop" option on a layer; in fact, if you select a portion of a layer that extends past the canvas boundaries, invert that selection, and then delete, the *unseen part of the layer does not go away!* If you drag that layer around later, you'll find your "deleted" pixels showing up around the canvas edges! But I think I'll stop now as I've covered most of the big ones - especially those without clear work-arounds.
To sum up the differences, strengths, and weaknesses of these two programs, I will simply state what should be pretty obvious: PSE is meant for the "consumer" market. That is, folks with limited experience with computers in general and full featured graphics editors in general who just want to get something fun made. Therefore it is strongly oriented towards intuitive operation with a de-emphasis on fine-grained control. Gimp, by contrast, is meant for the (thrifty) geek who wants to be able to do Absolutely Anything, and (just as importantly) knows exactly what she wants to do, likes to do a little math in her head, and exercise specific control over what she's doing, even if it takes a few more clicks - and a lot more of a learning curve.

As I mentioned at the beginning I will not be uninstalling either program in the foreseeable future. I imagine that I will continue to use PSE for a very free-form, text-heavy, small format scrapbook that I am working on this year because of its intuitive layer selection, rotating, resizing, and grouping, and its superior text editing.
But for my full format (12x12) pages, or any page that I am "scraplifting" or using someone else's page map, I will probably be sticking with Gimp because of its fine grained-controls for object placement and scale, selection placement, cropping, and etc.
Of course, Gimp has the advantage of being able to both read and write the PSD format, so I technically have the option of doing the nit-picky layout in Gimp and then moving to PSE for the finishing touches and journaling. It remains to be seen how often that really happens, though.

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